The Island Of Dr. Moreau (1977)


THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU explored in 1977 what had been left untouched by man or ‘manimals’ since 1933’s classic Island Of Lost Souls.  Color, big stars and the correct title took a new look at H.G.Wells 1896 sci-fi/horror thriller about man messing with nature and the inevitable bite back. Though this $6,000,000 production doesn’t have the novelty or creepy quotient of the oldie with the devilishly daft Charles Laughton, it benefits from committed performances, neat makeup, a choice locale and some wild stunts. Well directed by Don Taylor, next to the craptacular 1996 version, notoriously sabotaged by Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer, this looks just fine. *

You’ve been drinking for two straight days Montgomery. I suggest that you continue.”

Shipwrecked ‘Andrew Braddock’ (Michael York, 34) makes it to a tropical island but quickly finds he’s not alone, but the guest of ‘Dr. Paul Moreau’ (Burt Lancaster, 63), a scientist with a palisade-protected estate in the jungle. The fence is here to keep out wildlife, including some of Moreau’s ‘genetic experiments’ that didn’t turn out fully baked. Two other humans are on site; surly muscle-for-hire ‘Montgomery’ (Nigel Davenport) and beautiful, mysterious ‘Maria’ (Barbara Carrera) whose exact relationship with the medicine man is unclear. There’s no ship due for two years, and after he sees what’s going down, Braddock’s chances of getting on it don’t look likely.

                              “What is The Law?”

Wisely resisting any attempt to wound the already inherently bizarre material by going the camp route, the cast, script and direction play it straight down the line. Lancaster, rather than coast through his one-off in a usually dismissed genre, was intrigued by Wells’ theme of moral responsibility and messing with the natural order. He commented that it dealt “with the responsibilities of science towards mankind. Or if you will, how far can they go before the dehumanization of man takes place?” While Laughton’s vivisector was a deranged sadist, Burt’s  far-afield researcher is “an unusual man, a man involved in his career, a strange man. So we played him dead straight on.”

York gets to go full-throttle in his scenes where he’s being ‘treated to regress’: it’s a powerful piece of physically taxing anguish and outrage. While this part didn’t attract anything like the attention of his big hits Cabaret or The Three Musketeers, he has moments here that any actor could be proud of.

Davenport readily comports himself with seedy machismo: just down the road he would join Lancaster in the overlooked epic Zulu DawnCarrera, 31, isn’t called upon to do more than be ravishing: in a few more years she’d show real style as a Bond bad girl in Never Say Never Again, the best thing in that disappointing 007 opus. She did manage to garner extra publicity for this movie with a well-timed “Playboy” layout. Huh, I was doing research at the time without realizing it; I do recall the articles in that issue were fascinating (cough).

As the ‘Sayer of The Law’, the leader (spokesperson?) for Moreau’s misshapen creation, the estimable Richard Basehart makes an impression even in pounds of makeup (he and his pack had to submit to four hours of makeup); the grotesque visuals for the man-beasts are complimented by some superb sound effects.

Whereas the ’32 version made do (and made the most of) some location work on Catalina island off the California coast and neat art direction, this time around the whole shoot was done on St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands. The makeup jobs are good, though they don’t have the same chill factor as those done for the original. The action scenes work well, with some truly hairy (no pun intended) stunt work involving big cats, a bear, a bull and a hyena: a good amount of looks pretty risky.

Al Ramrus and John Herman Shaner wrote the screenplay. Leonard Rosenman delivers proper portense in his score. Burt’s lifelong pal Nick Cravat makes his 9th and final appearance in a Lancaster picture, under makeup as one of the manimals. A gross of $10,800,000 ranked it 56th in ’77, the year all essays into the fantastic were dominated by Star Wars and Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. 98 minutes.**

* Affable former actor-turned-director Don Taylor took the controls for 27 TV movies and episodes on 53 different series. His feature film output of 12 pictures ranged from fun (Ride The Wild Surf) to flatulent (The Great Scout And Cathouse Thursday). This respectable sci-fi entry is his best work, even though he was modestly dismissive, saying “I needed horror. I needed suspense. I needed to get to the audience and get them involved. I never did completely succeed.” He meshed well with the director-chewing Lancaster: “He was marvelous. He gave me everything. And he took chances. I had no problem with Burt at all.” 

 ** Besides the two extraterrestrial blockbusters, fantasy/scifi/horror were badly served in 1977. Two choice entrees were Suspiria and The Last Wave, but they were lost in the wake of the cosmic epics and a galaxy of junk. The underrated The Island Of Dr. Moreau beats the contaminated DNA out of Exorcist II: The Heretic, Orca, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, The Hills Have Eyes, Kingdom Of The Spiders, Damnation Alley, Wizards, The Sentinel, The People That Time Forgot, Day Of The Animals, Rabid and Demon Seed. Bring on the pig-man! And of course, Ms. Carrera.


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